SourceCode co-founder Becky Honeyman on Brands Taking a Political Stance

Just over a year ago I was at a PR Council debate about the outcome of the 2016 election, the rise of ‘fake news’ and the role of brands in trying to grab back some of the trust that had been eroded throughout. One data point in particular struck me as odd back then – a consumer survey showed that the majority of Americans did not want their most loved brands getting involved in politically charged debates. As a comms professional I found this strange – we talk a great deal with our clients about the importance of brand values and identity, and we counsel them to take a stand on debates that truly matter to them.

Anyone who knows me knows that brand purpose and standing for things we believe (as citizens and corporations) is incredibly close to my heart, so this discussion rattled around in my mind for months afterwards. Were we missing the point when it came to all things politics? And how were consumers deciding what constituted ‘political’ when it seemed almost everything could be up for debate?

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the reprise of the PR Council’s debate – keen to see one year on what had changed. The data point that had so engaged me over a year ago had swung significantly in the opposite direction. Rather than the traditional American ‘let’s keep politics out of this’, consumers were clamoring for the brands they love to take a stand on the issues close to their heart. More than this, it became very clear that brands were increasingly pulled into social and political debates whether they like it or not, and those that try to sidestep the debate are no longer applauded. And organizations that do take a stand are seeing immediate brand equity improvements, and importantly, a positive impact to revenue. The risk/benefit equation of saying nothing is changing. Research from Sprout Social last month confirmed this shift – finding that two thirds of consumers no longer want the brands they use and identify with to stay silent on social and political issues.

The times do indeed feel like they’re changing. We’ve long seen purpose-driven brands like the wonderful Ben & Jerry’s marching, campaigning, donating and supporting the causes they hold dear but we’re seeing this phenomenon spread before our eyes. Last night I watched with (I’m not going to deny it) a tear in my eye, as brands that I would have placed on the conservative edge of the corporate world, began to take a stand on a highly divisive issue. First, the First National Bank of Omaha announced it was cutting ties with the NRA. Within the hour I saw tweets from Enterprise, Alamo and National confirming they too were ending their NRA member discount.

Social media reacted immediately. Some people commented that they would take their business elsewhere but statements from the businesses announcing the decision each explained that it was driven by and in response to their own customer feedback. In what can only have been the tensest of boardroom discussions, each of these brands took a stand to side with their existing customers at the risk of losing others. I hope and expect this trend to continue as we see consumer dollars increasingly spent with social impact in mind, and brands responding in kind. As they say, with great power come great responsibility – but we’re finally seeing consumers demand to understand who they’re purchasing from as people. Bring it on.